On Donna Tartt and Goldfinches

Last week my mom took me to the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague as a treat. It has recently been reopened after its restoration and it looks better than ever before. As a bonus, you can see the Dutch houses of parliament from its windows. The museum is known for its collection of Dutch paintings, ranging from Paulus Potter’s paintings of cows to the elaborate still lives Dutch masters have become so famous for. The museum has an interesting link with the University of East Anglia: it owns Girl With a Pearl Earring, the Vermeer painting which inspired Tracy Chevalier (creative writing graduate) to write her well-known novel. Well worth a visit if you’re into this type of art.

The museum also owns another remarkable painting: Het Puttertje (The Goldfinch), a 1654 painting by Carel Fabritius. As the title suggests, the painting depicts a small colourful bird chained to its feeder. Though most would now probably consider this to be a form of animal cruelty, chained goldfinches were popular pets at the time the painting was produced. It is a small but wonderful painting which is, on one hand, surprisingly realistic and on the other hand very modern. Fabritius used merely a few brushstrokes to portray the bird, making it both a realistic portrait and an artful interpretation.

The painting features in Donna Tartt’s latest novel, conveniently named The Goldfinch. I immeditately started to read it after seeing the painting and discovering that it had inspired the story. Of course I’m not living in a cave, so I knew a new Tartt novel had come out, but I had procrastinated reading it because, as usual, other books were demanding my attention. With the fresh personal impression of The Goldfinch in mind, I set out to make my way through the novel’s whopping 925 pages.

Tartt has always been popular in the Netherlands. I guess this is because Dutch people like long, reflective novels. Thrillers and the like have always been considered “popular” or “pulp”. Despite the popularity of writers like Karen Slaughter, few people are prepared to give more extreme writers literary credit. Serious literature, many critics appear to believe, needs to be slow-paced and civilized rather than overwhelming. As a lover of Chuck Palahniuk cum suis, I tend to disagree with this view.  Then again, all those people can’t be entirely wrong, and I believe it’s good to read beyond your own comfort zone. If so many people praise and enjoy a book, there must be something to it.

Indeed, there is. Tartt is a very good writer. I enjoyed her previous works for their meticulous descriptions of the characters and their surroundings. She has the ability to make you feel as if you’re physically there with the people she writes about, conjuring up a world which may be alien to you but feels completely believable at the same time. The Goldfinch contained many intruiging characters: the main character who remains obsessed with the painting throughout his life, his rather odd friend Boris, and his mysterious mother. It’s a terrible cliche, but by the time I finished the novel I felt as if they were old friends rather than pieces of fiction.

Yet at the same time I’m not entirely convinced by the novel. Perhaps I’m too young and impatient to appreciate the plot, but to me it often felt as if the story could have been told in half the amount of pages. Sure, I kept on reading, but mainly because I wanted to know the novel’s ending and I’m opposed to reading the last page before reading the others. I felt slightly disappointed after finishing the story: surely more could have happened in a book which is so heavy that my arm muscles got considerably stronger from holding it.

Can I relate to Theo’s amazement when he first sees the painting? Absolutely. Can I understand why he is so obsessed with it that he keeps it with him for years, desperate to lose it, and even kills to protect it? Perhaps. But rather than reading this novel again, I’ll get me another museum ticket to see The Goldfinch with my own eyes once more.

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